Staff Driving Impressions
The 2008 ForTwo is very similar to the previous model, which is to say, miniscule. But, like last time, you aren't aware of the teensy two-seater's tiny size once you're inside - there's loads of room. The new five-speed automated manual shifts more smoothly than the old six-speed, and the 71-hp gas engine positively blows the doors off of the 40-hp diesel I drove last year. I still think there's only a very small, niche market for the Smart - after all, the much larger Honda Fit costs only a little more - but its adorable styling and I'm-saving-the-Earth image will certainly win some fans.
Look, no one is saying this car is for cross-country drives. It is what it is, which is a very cool-looking urban runner that feels huge inside, has a very good safety story, gets respectable fuel economy, and can park in your back pocket. It responds instantly to throttle, has fairly quick paddle shifters, and handles around town errands with major style. People love-love-love it. Not a chick car. Not even a raving eco-weinermobile. Just, well, Smart.
My drive around Ann Arbor provoked a remarkable amount of public interest in the Smart ForTwo. But then, this is Ann Arbor, the People's Republic of Michigan. That said, a Smart spokesman claimed they'd had unexpected enthusiasm for the concept in places as unlikely as Omaha. At any rate, the 2008 Smart drove very similarly to the previous generation car, which I've had extensive experience with in London, UK. Biggest complaint remains the slow-witted gearbox, although the Smart can be driven pretty enthusiastically in manual mode (as demonstrated by Sir Stirling Moss in his own black and white Smart on a death-wish drive through Mayfair. BTW, he calls it 'Shamu'). So will it work here? Well, if Smart doesn't get too ambitious with the numbers, there could well be enough urbanites to float it.
When I first spotted the new Smart ForTwo in a Detroit parking garage--amongst America's army of towering SUVs--I found it hard to stifle schoolboy-like giggles. This thing is just plain dinky! But that's not the feeling you get when you sit behind the wheel, since the cabin makes up so much of the car's footprint. Heck, there's even some luggage space on top of the rear-mounted, 1.0-liter three-cylinder engine. Start driving down the road, and the surprisingly tall and wide ForTwo feels pretty much like a regular car, save for its strangely squishy steering, its floor-hinged brake pedal, and its tossable, go-kart-like chassis. Until--that is--you pull up next to a dump truck, when you might feel inclined to brace for a nuclear attack. (For the record, Smart expects this car to earn four-star safety ratings, and it has a superstiff "Tridion safety cell" skeleton.) For as low as $12K ($17K for the convertible), the 40-plus-mpg ForTwo should make an affordable runabout for select urbanites--the car's reception in the rest of America is less predictable.